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No man’s land

Settling in a foreign culture is remarkably … unsettling. I find myself in a no man’s land between two cultures – old and new. While I feel richer for all the ways in which both cultures challenge one another, and me, and for the insight and freedom these challenges offer me, I feel poorer for not belonging, for lacking a solid foundation.

Of course, there was no plan. I ended up in Southern Africa as a twenty-something, and the future was a neatly wrapped deck of cards in the back pocket of my ripped jeans. But the very moment I set foot on African soil, my feet locked down. In an instant, I took it all in, and connected irreversibly. The vivid colours against a background of bright blue skies and reddish-brown earth. Life! The natural, open spaces. Freedom! The raw humanity of the people. Love! Down the years, that initial spark would be challenged, but it would never leave me entirely. Up until this day, twenty-something years later, I feel that connection deeply.

I’ve come full circle. I have been away from my country of birth for exactly as long as I have lived there. This is home now, or is it?

Perhaps because I was younger then, and perhaps because this country had just woken up confidently from a painful past, or perhaps just because it is in the African ways, my arrival was warmly welcomed with optimism and hope. The drawing board had been reset, peacefully, and anything was possible. The optimism of this country coincided with the optimism of the young man I was. Of course, there was a complicated process of social healing, with which I sympathised dearly. There were reports of abuse, failures and despondence, which angered me. There were reports of horrendous crime, which scared the living hell out of me. But then, somehow, neither the sarcasm nor the despondence were able to dampen the hope. Neither was the blatant poverty in the urban and rural townships. After all, everything would be better tomorrow.

I jumped right in. I shared drinks at shebeens in Cape Town, joined social dinner tables in Franschhoek, danced at the town hall in Bulawayo, bought a drum from Rastafarians in Harare, played, taught and recorded music with young rappers from the townships, almost bribed a traffic official in Maputo and definitely got high in Sosusvlei, advocated the rights of poor workers in the Boland, avoided a fight in Kimberley, and put my life in the hands of an old man in Okavango. I felt a deep connection, an overarching likeness, a shared humanity with all the people I met. I was certain that, after all, we are all humans, with identical, universal values and virtues.

  • Naturally there were differences and misunderstandings, too. An invitation to get together here does not mean the same thing as what it means in my country of birth. Here it means “Hello, good to see you.” I wasn’t used to starting every single conversation with an inquiry into people’s, and their extended family’s, health. I’m clueless about the rules of rugby. I don’t hunt. I’m not religious and don’t attend church. I don’t hold the hand of the person I’m talking to. I don’t add chutney to my meat or chilli to my cheese, let alone tabasco to my oysters. I don’t care much for nation building or racial identity. Or for the authority of elders, ancestors and cultural traditions. Then again, these differences seemed like small details in the bigger image of human unity I held up high.

But then, it started to dawn on me that I inevitably see the world through a particular lens. I carry particular, preconceived concepts of thought, value and virtue in me. Concepts I had brought with me from the country of my birth. Concepts that are never questioned in the country of my birth. Concepts I had not questioned up until that point. At the same time, of course, I started to see that people here are equally knee-deep immersed in concepts of their own. It dawned on me that people can be fundamentally different. My first response was to try and point out to people how wrong they were. This seemed easy in a country deeply hurt, embarrassed and guilt-ridden by its past. It is easy for an outsider to come and point out the imbalances and the injustices of a broken society. It is easy for an outsider to take the moral high ground and expose the shortcomings of a country and a people that have been stretched to the limits. My second, improved response was, and I assume still is, to try and expose and explain the preconceptions I, and the people of both cultures I move around in, are controlled by. Because once I became aware of the differences, they have been impossible to ignore.

Of course, I also wanted to simply be acknowledged and accepted by my new communities. The more I became aware of the local customs and patterns, the more attempts I made, probably unconsciously, to embrace them. By sheer imitation, I tried them on and wore them with pride, publicly. I wanted to fit in. I attended rugby and cricket games. I wore shorts and flip-flops a lot of the time. I laughed at jokes about corruption and mismanagement – that’s just the African way, the local custom dictated. My eyes started to glaze over when I heard of another violent crime – Africa is not for sissies. I publicly pronounced my love for outside cooking on big roaring fires. I rooted for the local team at international sporting events. I started speaking with a local accent, throwing in local vocabulary and handing out customised handshakes as if I knew what I was doing. Half of the time, locals acted as if I was one of them, and treated me as an insider. But half of the time they didn’t …

While all this was happening over a period of many years, the thought of going back to my country of birth has never left me. The thought of calling it a day, wrapping up the African adventure in a stack of framed souvenirs, and returning to my roots, is permanently, in varying degrees of intensity, smouldering in the background. It is at its strongest when I feel alienated, discomforted or disgusted by events I don’t understand or disapprove of. The optimism – whether mine or the country’s – that greeted me when I arrived is long gone, or at least often hard to find these days. The thought of going back is at its strongest when I realise that I can never be one of them. But with this realisation, comes another. I am no longer one of the other thém either – those in my country of birth. I cannot go back. The warm comfort I imagine of returning to the old home, is an illusion. I’m a permanent stranger now, torn between a home that’s no longer a home and an adventure that will never be a home. I’m caught in the middle, in a no man’s land.

No man’s lands are wonderfully inspirational and liberating. The unclaimed, uncultivated soil of a no man’s land allows us to grow and build from scratch, as per our very own, freely chosen, specifications. I believe this is what the existentialist philosophers Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir had in mind. We have to, we are condemned to, write our own journeys in life, and take responsibility for where we end up. Don’t let the anxiety of freedom overwhelm and dizzy you. Don’t let excuses, fear, historical, cultural and social limitations get in the way. Embrace freedom with all that you are, you can be anything.

Of course, no man’s lands can be scary, unsettling and confusing too. Regardless of armchair theories, too many options can be dizzying, overwhelming and a cause for anxiety. The lack of a foundation to fall back onto to give meaning and sense to the choices we make, is uncomfortable. How do we ever know whether a choice was the right choice, if we have no frame of reference? Without the conclusive judgement and support of a tradition, or a culture, or indeed a religion, this remains a matter of personal responsibility. And because it is a personal responsibility, it is a lonely position to be in. It is lonely because it appears to be nearly impossible to share with people that wholeheartedly subscribe to, or are unknowingly immersed in, preconceived traditions, cultures and religions.

So, while being in between cultures is confusing, disorienting and lonely, it is an exceptionally insightful and liberating position to be in. In the clash, or in more gentle interactions between the old and the new, there is no need to choose. There is no either-or. There is no need to sacrifice one over the other. The wealth of people that find themselves in between cultures lies in the wealth of experiences, meanings and values, in the complex ways the new and the old teach and learn from one another, and in the freedom this affords to independently design a unique life from the bits and pieces found along the way.

Hello, I'm Jeroen. I study philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and Stellenbosch. I use this website to gently wrap my head around the new concepts I learn, to practise my writing skills, and to occasionally vent an opinion. Here's one: I like hats. [+]